Don't Tell, Don't Show -- Play: Gaming's Movie-Envy

Here is a Web flashback for everyone -- "Happy Puppy." For longtime gamers, the name will be recognizable as the site to be on in the mid to late 1990s. When I was writing for the company, we explored a number of different editorial approaches to gaming, including long features on the arts of storytelling and a series I initiated on whether gaming was art. That issue came to the foreground last year again when film critic Roger Ebert issued his controversial edict that gaming was not "art." When I engaged the topic nearly fifteen years ago, however, video gaming was in the first throes of movie-envy. Companies like LucasArts, Sierra Online and others struggled mightily to make their new releases somehow feel like film narratives. Elaborate "cut-scenes" were all the rage, and the occasional refugee from film script writing would come in to "elevate" the medium now and then.

Whether video gaming constitutes as "art" or not is for me a tiresome question. Does it matter? To whom? The larger and more pertinent issue is whether and how elements from the traditional arts like character, narrative, visual language, and pace can improve or expand the joys of interactivity. Gaming offers its own unique aesthetic joys that are different from most non-interactive video. The game experience immerses the user in an environment in a special way that may share more with the qualities of set design and architecture than film or novel. Games like Bio Shock or Red Dead Redemption are striking, mainly in the worlds they create. Nintendo's Mario games are downright hallucinogenic. The fact that James Cameron's Avatar became such a monster hit is a testament to the influence of gaming on taste, perhaps. Most game scripts are better, but the main action of the film dramatized visually an act of plugging into a rich virtual environment that the majority of its youth-oriented audience understood intuitively now mainly from gaming.



All of this is by way of introduction to a wonderful short online documentary on video game storytelling, "Interactive fiction: the Art of Video Game Storytelling." Gaming veterans are in for a treat from some of the great figures in game design. From Jane Jensen (Gabirel Knight series) to Richard Garriott (Ultima) and more, some of your old favorites are here discussing both the history of storytelling in games and the central challenges. How do you engender sympathy in characters who are hacking and slashing. How can you interrupt interactive free play with the linear components of story and character?  

For those of you who are in the online linear video industry, there is a lot to be learned from the solutions that game makers have found for weaving story and character into a free play experience, too. Gaming heightens the importance of certain visual and audio qualities and reminds us how complex achieving true engagement can be. One day we may stop asking whether gaming is art and instead ask whether our linear entertainment achieves the level of immersion and involvement we identify with great games. After all, if gaming is going to influence all art forms, we have to (have to) do better than Avatar.

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